Freedom and Faith

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I can’t remember at all who acted in it, but many years ago I saw a Saturday Night Live skit that has stayed with me over time – not for the stars in it, but for the premise, which was hilarious and clever.  A host was interviewing two people – one person who lived about a minute in the future, a minute ahead of everyone else, and the other person, who lived about a minute behind everyone else, a minute in the past.  You can imagine how this played out. As the show is beginning and the host is welcoming viewers, the first guest interrupts, saying, “Well thanks, it’s great to be here” – before he’s even been introduced. And then after the introductions have been made, the second guest is still sitting there, saying nothing. Then the first guest starts to answer a question the host hasn’t asked yet, and as the host is catching up, in the middle of actually asking the question, the second guest says, “Thank you, it’s great to be here.” And it goes on from there.  All those years ago, I just thought it was very funny.  Now I know it was not entirely unlike the experience of preaching to a group of people who are not wholly conversant with the language you are preaching in.

My message this morning is essentially the same sermon I preached to the members of our partner church in Szentegyhaza last June.  I wrote it during the trip, informed by the experience, seeking to use reference points and perspectives that would be either very familiar to them or else very fresh and very compelling, so that the unfamiliar parts wouldn’t just sit there inert, as sometimes happens when you’re interacting across cultures and different norms and ways of thinking and behaving.  That’s hard enough when it happens in a conversation.  In a sermon, it would be a worst nightmare.  And of course, I wrote it in English.  Our  wonderful interpreter translated it into Hungarian, and then I preached it in English, pausing after each paragraph or so for Rev. Keleman, the minister of our partner church, to deliver the Hungarian version of my message. Now clearly a few congregants there could follow some of the English, but it seemed like no one was so conversant with the language that they could fully follow what I was saying.  So I upped my delivery, giving it everything I had, to convey my message as evocatively and clearly as possible.  And still, while I was preaching, the Szentegyhaza congregation would mostly just kind of sit there attentively until Rev. Keleman redelivered in Hungarian – what I had said.  And then there would be the response – nods or looks of interest or resonance.  It was a unique experience – definitely reminiscent of that SNL skit – but I got acclimated to it as it unfolded – which was pretty much true for many of the remarkable experiences of that trip.  It was a pleasure and an honor to be there and get to know them, to receive their gracious and kind hospitality, and to learn the ways of their village, and Unitarianism there, which was at once familiar and also very different – as I told them in the beginning of my sermon.

So now I’m flipping what I said then to them, to say it to us, now.  This experience of unity and difference reminds me of one of my favorite Pauline epistles, Galatians. “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free;  all are one in Christ Jesus.”  As always, Paul’s writing was powerful in its artistry, but also for its message – that there are some truths and values which transcend those aspects of identity which both make us unique and also too often divide us.  Faith, like love, is a bridge we cross again and again, a bridge that requires our attentive care, – and when we keep it strong, a bridge that safeguards our access to each other.  Connected among ourselves here in Providence, Rhode Island at First Unitarian, connected across our continental denomination, and also connected with them all there in Szentegyhaza.

As many of you here at First U know, I am a minister with both Jewish and Christian roots; my father was Jewish, my mother was Catholic.  Together they chose to raise myself and my sister as Unitarian Universalists because they wanted us to learn a faith that would respect both heritages equally, and also respect other faiths as well, thus equipping us to be citizens of the world, which is what my parents believe in most of all.  This wide-ranging vision and freedom of our faith is what brought my family into this religion, into the lifelong journey of discovery and evolution that is Unitarian Universalism.  For this too, I find wisdom further in Galatians Chapter 5:13-15:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

What Paul is talking about here is a value that is fundamentally Unitarian Universalist, but one we don’t actually have a word for.  It’s essentially the summation of all our beliefs rolled up in one. There is a word for it that comes from a very different setting, one of my favorite words: UbuntuUbuntu is a Zulu and Bantu word from Southern Africa.  Ubuntu is a relational understanding: “I am who I am because of who we all are.”  I am who I am because of who we all are.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines Ubuntu this way:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

What Ubuntu expresses, what our purposes and principles add up to, what I learned they also live there in Transylvanian Unitarianism, is that you can’t be human all by yourself.

The best illustration I know of this value is a true story I’ve told before here at First U. I told it to them at Szentegyhaza. I pretty much tell it every chance I get because I think it’s so clear and important and extraordinary and inspiring.  The poet Sonia Sanchez told it to a gathering of ministers years ago at a General Assembly. You may remember it – but heck, it bears repeating.  She was coming home, very late, around 1am, from work to the poor urban neighborhood where she lived.  Sonia Sanchez is a very small, elderly, woman, a person of color, and she was in her 70’s at the time she described.  She had with her a briefcase and her bulky purse.  Suddenly, at the end of dimly-lit block she saw a young man, a teenager, walking in her direction.  She saw him notice her from the other end of the block, and she saw him stop, and check both ways, up and down the empty street, and then start up again, coming towards her.  Can you imagine what she did?   She ran to him and threw her arms around him and said: “Oh my brother, my brother, I’m so glad you’re here.  Now you can see me safely home.”  And he did.  And she sat on her stairs with him when they got her home and she asked him why he was out so late and he said “Got no job, out looking for stuff to do.”  She said “There is no life for you out here, late at night.  Out here, this late, you will find no work, no life, only death.”  They grew into friendship that night;  eventually she found him a job where she worked at Temple University.

That is the kind of freedom and love that is possible – deep, human, spiritual, brilliance and transformation, taking a stranger, even perhaps someone we fear, and changing a moment, and lives, by declaring kinship.  Sonia Sanchez ran to a strange youth and called him her brother, she talked with him, she got to know him, and the connection they both made together was lasting.  Ubuntu.

So much in the world isolates us, whether by intent or effect. We have all known the pain of trying to be human – it feels like –  all by oneself.  Our faith, this church, stands against that.  Against all the ways people fear each other, defend against each other, and in so doing, diminish and demean each other. This church works, and has always worked, to push and keep doors open, so that we can breathe, so that we can move, so that we can be, ourselves and each other, free.  Free to attend and respect the truths and varieties of human identity and experience, to attend and respect each other, because when we truly attend and respect each other, we are on the path to love.  When we look to the lessons of our own lives and hearts, they begin to free us, and what they free us for is love.

Paul’s vision was as radical, as challenging and challenged when he wrote almost it 2000 years ago, as it still is now, a continually revolutionary vision of caring and liberation and unity.  What it looks like in practice is the lesson Sonia Sanchez offers. What it looks like in a word is Ubuntu. Paul’s vision of freedom grounded in faith, working through love is so insightful that we can take this formula out of his context and it still works, like gravity or light.  Wherever it occurs, faith working truly through love necessarily brings freedom – and reconciliation – with it.  That’s a precious thing to remember right now, when there is so much division in our world, here in our own nation and also, as we learned, there in their country, division that is so often amplified by corrupt politicians and noxious media.  They feed on what is rotten, and then try to feed their foul results to all of us, and in so doing, to push us all back into the categories and boxes that falsely, evilly, divide us with ignorance and prejudice that believes we are different therefore unequal rather than unique and equally precious.

Because it is clear to me from our visit there that the seeds of Unitarian religious tolerance – and not just tolerance but respect – were well-sown, as deeply sown there as here in the US.  And with the relationship we affirm in these days together, we remind each other that our faith has many forms and places, that we are part of something larger, not just this congregation or region or one denomination, but a faith that has spanned many continents, a faith that, even when small, has also been pivotal, with leaders and stories that have tipped the scales of history, leaders and stories we all can learn from.

So then what can we learn from each other now? Some of the things we learn may be simple.  On that trip last summer I learned better how to correctly pronounce King John “Sijismund’s” name – maybe not perfectly, but better.

Some things we learn may be unexpected. On an early part of the trip in the city – and former Unitarian stronghold – of Koloshvar, a young Unitarian minister, Rev. Yulia, gave us an orientation lecture in which she mentioned her firm belief that the current Transylvanian Unitarian church has work to do to better consolidate its foundation and institutional strength.  But what I saw as a visitor was that they had done a lot of that already.  As a persecuted religious and ethnic minority, they have looked outside the box to strengthen and present themselves in unusual ways.  They have a Unitarian restaurant – which is fabulous by the way – an appealing blend of contemporary and rustic, with beautiful spaces and truly delicious food – I loved it.  If I lived in Kolosvar, I would eat there all the time.  And it’s name?  1568.  Named of course for the year 1568 which is when – what happened?  (Edict of Torda, one of the world’s first declarations of religious tolerance, conceived of by the great Transylvanian Unitarian minister Francis David and enacted by the great and only Unitarian king, John Sijismund.)  They have a Unitarian shopping center – how’s that for an enterprising way to ensure a revenue stream?  And they have Unitarian guest houses for visitors across their rural region where you can stay with confidence and comfort, and multiple Unitarian schools which serve the larger community both within and beyond Unitarianism. All these generate funds to support their ministries and congregations.  Creatively and continually, Transylvanian Unitarians have kept their people strong and dedicated throughout centuries of challenge and oppression.  We American Unitarian Universalists would gain a lot from studying their examples and looking at how we might bring that same enterprising spirit to perceive utterly new and different opportunities and possibilities in our own environment.

As I said then, it’s not for me to say what they can learn from us. That’s a question for them all to reflect on and answer for themselves.  Indeed, even my thoughts about what we can learn from them is only my own answer. I couldn’t speak even for the other First U folks on the trip, let alone everyone here at home or in American Unitarian Universalism.  But I don’t doubt the Szentegyhaza Unitarians will find some answers, some learnings, though this relationship we have, because we all share, through our faith, a commitment to learning and growing. We are all proudly guilty of innovation. This was the sentence pronounced on Francis David when King John Sijismund died and the reins of power fell back into the hands of Catholics. He was imprisoned and soon died for the crime of innovation – a religious approach we always have embraced, and always will.

My own hope and belief is that over time our partnership will teach us all how to both strengthen and cross bridges that foster greater understanding.  If that happens, it is precious, it is deepening, it is exactly what faithful living is supposed to offer us.  It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it, sometimes most worth it if it’s hard.  And of course this is the difficulty and blessing of innovation – of our faith that believes in innovation, the careful discernment and exploration that progressive religion requires of us now and again – we never get to just stop. To say we’re done.  We’re never done.  That’s both the challenge and the hope.

We cannot be fully human by ourselves.  We cannot be fully human without each other. In the only slightly adapted words of Paul, may the grace of true brotherhood and sisterhood, of true kinship, be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.   Ours is no light undertaking.  So I say to you with gravity and gratitude and hope: may we all be apostles of peace and freedom with each other and between our congregations.  May this help us serve in our nations, and in our time.  May the goodness in our union strengthen us to bless the world.  Ubuntu.  Amen